Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Talkin’ Turkey

It was late evening as I walked out on the wide iron-red porch of the trading post to enjoy the golden autumn sunset. Fall is my favorite event here in Bluff. This year the season has stretched into late November, and, if we are very lucky, into early December. In our small, protected, high desert river valley we are blessed with enhanced, often exaggerated, seasons.

The gnarled and twisted limbs of the cottonwood trees stubbornly hang onto their bright yellow leaves; like overprotective, jealous guardians. Eventually the frosty north winds of winter will dip into our sheltered cove and tear them from the trees' selfish grasp. But not today! The circulating current of air was more than tolerable with just a hint of crispness to it. The breeze smelled and felt exhilaratingly refreshing.

I sat on the warm sunbathed concrete steps and looked to the south. Backlit by the rosy red cliffs, the cottonwoods, with their heavily textured trunks and bouquets of turned foliage, were lit up with an intensely rich glow. The slanting sunlight was filtering through the semitransparent leaves, and putting on a light show that was well worth the time to sit and watch.

At times like these when my mind and body relax the most, I find a place of less stress and anxiety, allowing the pleasures of sensation free reign. As I sat there easing my mind, I glimpsed movement to my right, over near the layered and stacked base of the Twin Rocks. Something had spooked a Merriam Turkey from behind the rocks, and the wild thing was beating a hasty retreat towards the river.

The bird was flying at a high rate of speed about ten feet off the ground, right across the parking lot in front of me. It was a large, full-bodied turkey with heavy plumage; I guessed it to be a tom. Its homely head was bright red and stretched far out ahead of its much larger body.

The dispersed sunlight washed over the bird, setting off the dark brown feathers tinged with gold. The white tipped tail feathers pointed straight back looking much like the back end of a lighted rocket. I could hear the turkey’s wings beating furiously at the evening air. In a flash, the creature was gone over the highway and hayfield to the dense tamarisk bordering the river.

I thought of how the Navajo believe that the turkey is a savior of sorts. When the people were forced from the previous world by Water Creature's great flood, it was Turkey who thought clearly. Making his way to the granary, Turkey carefully placed two of each seed on the feathers of his body. Thus, heavily burdened, Turkey made his way to the growing reed; an escape route provided by two men who would one day become Sun and Moon.

The encroaching waters lapped at Turkey's backside all the way to the reed, causing his tail feathers to be forever white as a reminder of his heroism. Turkey was the last one into the reed, barely making his escape. The seeds Turkey made off with provided the people an opportunity to grow and prosper upon their emergence into this world. Turkey had saved the day, ensuring a future to the Navajo.

Sighing and smiling inwardly, I thought to myself how beautiful and amazing the sight I had just witnessed had been. The sun sank lower on the horizon and the shadows grew longer and deeper. I forced myself up and off the porch, it was time to close the trading post and head up the highway to my warm, comfortable home and family. Life is good here at the base of the Twin Rocks; good indeed.

With warm regards,
Barry, Steve, and the Team

Friday, November 18, 2016

More Good Weather, More Great Baskets

As he wandered through the store last week, Rick, of the now famous Rick and Susie Bell duo, asked, “Yo, whatcha writing about?” Rick and Susie have recently returned to the Southwest from Louisville, Kentucky. They grew weary of slugging it out in the heat, humidity and traffic of the South and wanted a slower, drier existence. Susie worked with me at Twin Rocks over 20 years ago, so when I realized they were moving back, I took the opportunity to recruit them for the trading post team. They accepted, and shortly thereafter comfortably ensconced themselves in the home above the store, where I lived for more than two decades before moving around the block to the historic L.H. Redd, Jr. home. Almost every day the Fed Ex and UPS drivers arrive with packages for Susie, and once in a while a semi-tractor/trailer makes a large delivery. Barry, Priscilla and I have begun to wonder where she is putting all that stuff. We think Susie, like Jana, proves the theory that, “Nature abhors a void.” No matter, Rick and Susie seem happy with their new living arrangements and are already integrating themselves into the fabric of Bluff.

Rick does not typically use ghetto slang, so, when he posed his question I sat upright to pay closer attention. He just stood there, awaiting my reply. “The incredible light and the fabulous weather we are having”, I said. “Don’tcha think that has been done enough?” he asked. "Well, maybe”, I replied defensively, "but they are great, there has not been any real character in the store since early October, and Barry and Priscilla have been quiet, so what else do I have?” “Maybe it's writer’s block”, he suggested. “Yeah, for the past several . . . months”, Barry interjected. This caused Priscilla to snicker as she sat at her desk pricing turquoise jewelry. When Barry migrated to Blue Mountain Trading Post last year, Priscilla took the opportunity to move a desk into his office. Now that he has returned they are as tight as two pigs in a blanket.

Just as I had gotten myself into a jam writing too often about the extraordinary early winter months in Bluff, I had also gotten my tail in a crack ten years ago with the basketry of Elsie Holiday. Elsie and I began working together about 25 years earlier when she stumbled into Twin Rocks with a nice, but not necessarily exceptional, basket she had recently woven. At the time, many of the local Navajo basket and rug weavers followed the traditional design model; they were conservative in their approach so they could ensure a sale. Unfortunately, at the time, a lot of the Indian traders were not forward thinking when it came to Native American arts and crafts. They knew what had sold in the past and did not stray far from the standard motifs. As a consequence, the artists generally played it safe with respect to what they produced. As they say, “No sale, no chiddy.” Not having extra money to pay the truck or mobile home payment, insurance premium, grocery bill or school fees if their creation did not sell, they could not risk working days, weeks or even months on an item only to be turned away. Saving for a rainy day is not widely accepted on the Reservation, so as Barry is fond of saying, “The artists we work with are generally living close to the bone.” Consequently, once the item was finished, it has to be turned; even if that meant sacrificing it for a lower than expected price. This unfortunately led to an environment where creativity was not encouraged and was, in fact, generally undervalued.

The traders could not really be faulted, since they were in much the same predicament as the artists. They had to turn their inventory or the rent did not get paid and the landlord came knocking. Barry and I intuitively, and experientially, understood the situation. Being young and without a great deal of financial savvy, however, when Twin Rocks Trading Post opened we set out to change the model. It would be fair to say we did not know the financial commitment we were making. Barry had been flirting with designing new and innovative rugs, baskets and jewelry for some time. Because his drafting skills are, however, limited, his first attempts were rudimentary. In any case, we knew we wanted fresh, never before seen designs. We had not really thought about how we might market these products, we just jumped blindly into the project.

When Elsie arrived, Barry and I noticed she had real, raw talent. As a result, we began exploring a variety of other artistic movements we thought she might be interested in pursuing. We soon began suggesting geometric graphics, but she remained lukewarm. That attitude persisted until she determined to relocate her mobile home from Farmington, New Mexico back to Monument Valley and needed a pocketful of money to enlist the movers. As a result of this pressing need, she showed up at the trading post looking for a way to earn a sizable chunk of cash. I was ready, and suggested a large vessel, which she promptly wove. It was truly beautiful, and from that time forward Elsie has created the most unusual baskets we have ever seen.

What got me into trouble is that every time she brought in a new weaving I said to our customers, “I think it’s the best piece she has ever done!” After a time, the trading post patrons began to say, “Oh, that’s what you said last time.” The thing was, it was true. Just as each fall day here in Bluff has been more beautiful than its predecessor, each basket Elsie wove was better than the one before. Her designs careened from Oriental optical art, to Art Deco, to traditional Navajo blanket, to Escher illusions, to Helen Hardin, to Anasazi, to Pueblo pottery. Barry, Priscilla and I could only stand back in amazement when she arrived with the next in the series. So, while I seemed disingenuous, I was completely and absolutely sincere in my appraisal of her talent; as I am about the fall weather in Bluff.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Spiritual Guide

Recently a favorite customer of ours called and said he was interested in purchasing a necklace for his wife. “I would like something that represents my love, appreciation and respect for her.” Fortunately I had just the piece, a hand-rolled Sleeping Beauty turquoise jacla necklace by master Santa Domingo artist Andrew Lovato.

The kicker to this story is the customer wanted the necklace blessed by John Holiday. John is a beloved and well-respected Navajo medicine man from Monument Valley, a legendary singer of the Navajo Beautyway ceremony. This is a beautiful ritual that brings balance, blessings and good fortune to those blessed during rite.

I first met John in the late 1970s at Blue Mountain Trading Post, when he would have been in his late 50s or early 60s. I remembered John as a jovial man with a shimmering light in his eyes and a bubbling belly laugh. As I understood it, he had a weakness for card games and would pawn his jewelry with us when he needed quick cash. Rumor had it he was quick of mind and hand, and that he rarely lost. We also bought used ceremonial baskets from John, those he had received as partial payment for his ceremonial services. Later, when I moved to Twin Rocks Trading Post, Steve and I continued to buy John’s baskets.

At one point a friend wanted a medicine man to perform marital rites for her and her beloved at Dead Horse Point, near Canyonlands National Park, and asked us to assist. We commissioned John to conduct the ceremony, and he had a ball doing it. I can still hear his song and laugh reverberating over the canyon.

As John aged and diabetes set in we saw him less often, but knew he was still singing the Beautyway and earning ceremonial baskets. He would have a family member drive him to our trading post and honk when he arrived. Steve or I would hustle out and meet him at the car. We had no trouble selling baskets that had passed through John’s hands and felt we were in a way also receiving the blessings of this powerful practitioner.

As time went on and John no longer stopped in, we did the math and decided he must be nearing 100 years of age. We also heard his eyes were beginning to dim and the diabetes was getting worse. So, when our customer asked us to get the necklace blessed by John, I was uncertain we could accomplish the task. Nonetheless, we decided a trip to Monument Valley wouldn’t hurt. I wanted to see that spectacular landscape and our old friend once again.

Steve and I decided I should take Rick Bell with me on the quest. Rick and his wife Susie have recently joined our Twin Rocks team and are proving to be a positive influence. This outgoing and unique couple has experience in numerous fields that benefit the business, and we are only beginning to plumb the depth of their knowledge and understanding.

Because he too has a sarcastic wit and I can banter with him without getting into trouble, I was looking forward to spending the day with Rick. He is also an experienced professional photographer and writer, and his role in this adventure was to document the blessing of the special necklace.

Leaving the trading post around 10:00 a.m., we had only vague directions to John’s homestead. I would like to say we drove directly to John’s house, got the blessing and were back by noon, but that was not to be. We entered the valley through Douglas Mesa and promptly ran into a host of Natives who willingly shared with us some of the most confusing instructions ever given. With complicated directions provided in a mix of Navajo and English, complete with hand and lip gestures, we were led on a round-about journey that allowed us ample time to “discover” Monument Valley.

At one point we followed a beat-up Ford Pinto in what we decided must be the right direction, but our gas gauge redirected us to Goulding’s Lodge for refueling. After visiting a sweet and helpful lady at the Oljato Senior Center, we were back on track. “He’s ober dere”, she said, lip-pointing past Train Rock and sketching a simple map on a paper napkin. The drawing proved accurate enough that within 20 minutes we pulled into the yard of John’s home. Not wanting to barge in on the family’s privacy, we sat outside and waited to be acknowledged. Before long a middle-aged man came onto the porch and asked why we were there. We explained our quest and were quickly re-introduced to this most extraordinary individual.

When we entered the dwelling, there sat John Holiday. Although it was a warm day, he had been bundled in a blanket with his feet elevated and an oxygen tube placed in his nose. In Navajo fashion, Rick and I introduced ourselves. John nodded to Rick and recognized him as “Bilagaana Medicine Man”. He just stared at me, however, as if trying to recall my face. While John struggled to place me, Brian, John’s son and caregiver, tried to explain our previous connection. We sat face-to-face looking at each other for several minutes before I noticed recognition spark in his eyes. That wonderful laugh of his burst forth and he said, “Twin Rocks! Let’s go eat.” 

It was great to see our old friend again. We learned John is 99 years old and will pass the century mark next March. It is difficult to express the respect and awe Navajo people feel towards this wonderful healer/priest, but Rick and I certainly experienced it as we visited him. Even in his aged state John is a dynamic individual with a powerful presence. After a brief negotiation with his son, John agreed to bless the necklace. Not wanting to be hindered by the oxygen tube, he removed it, readjusted his scarf and prepared his paraphernalia. Bringing out his corn pollen pouch, he began to sing.

Hasteen Holiday was focused, and strength seemed to emanate from his being as he sang. There was no doubt John was sincere. The tone of his voice, demeanor and dignified manner assured us his heart and mind were where they needed be to perform this traditional procedure. His song was beautiful and its harmonic cadence soothing. Even though we did not understand his words, we grasped the solemn purpose as this holy-man fulfilled this task. In this place so sacred to the Navajo, the Blessingway prayer repeatedly tells us to Walk In Beauty. It is easily done in that unique landscape. Rick took photographs and I sat and absorbed the experience.

Before we departed, Rick and I were offered Hasteen John Holiday’s pollen bag and invited to bless ourselves in the traditional Navajo manner. John passed us his pouch and we took out pinches of the sacred powder, putting a touch on our tongues, the top of our heads and outward to the east, the Way of Beauty.

After receiving specific directions for accepting the necklace, Rick and I said our goodbyes and departed. We both felt we had witnessed something extraordinary. A holy-man had conducted a rite to grant the recipient of the necklace all the benefits he could summon. We departed feeling uniquely blessed.